It’s been an exciting year for science fiction, with two of the genre’s largest names publishing very 21st century novels about intergenerational space journeys.
Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves is typically Stephenson-esque, with fast pacing, adventure, lots of geeky science detail, and a nice little ongoing dialogue about the philosophical and practical merits of science vs politics.
When an unexplained event breaks the moon into multiple pieces, Earth’s population must rapidly plan and execute an evacuation strategy to avoid the 10,000 year meteor shower that will soon render the surface of Earth uninhabitable. A rapid hack of the International Space Station, followed by a mad cap space race to secure the resources required for continued human existence in space takes up the first half of the book. The second half of the book speculates on what remaining human life may look like 5,000 years in the future.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, with strong and interesting characters (especially the wonderful Dinah and Ivy). The pioneering spirit and eternally provisional feel of the early days of the space arc reminded me a lot of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, a favourite of mine. I loved the ongoing problem solving, and internal politics and debates within the space settlement as Stephenson details the formation of a new society within space. The tension, pacing and mindblowing possibilities of the middle part of this novel were just thrilling.
The second half of the book was a bit too much of a break from the first for me, and left me struggling to suspend disbelief. I don’t think Stephenson does spectacular space fantasy nearly as well as he does contemporary and historical science fiction. I often wished that this last part of the novel had been written by a more restrained writer of new worlds; Ursula Le Guin came to mind. There were some classic Stephenson moments in the second half, however, and my need for narrative resolution plus the wonderful character Sonar Taxlaw kept me reading.
Stephenson always has a significant focus on technology in his work, and of course engineering and technological fixes abound in Seveneves. Kim Stanley Robinson is similarly known for a focus on technological solutions in his science fiction, but so often this is sensitively married with environmental concerns. These interests were condensed and more finely focussed than ever before in Aurora through a narrative focus on the ongoing care and maintenance of an intergenerational spaceship with its own complex and fragile biosphere. The question of a closed biological system in space, and the associated ecological implications are very much at the forefront of this novel.
While the problem solving and speculative engineering in Aurora was interesting, I found I wasn’t nearly as engaged with Robinson’s characters as I expected to be. Having loved many of the characters in his Mars books, I was surprised that the characters in Aurora were not greatly fleshed out. The one exception was the ship’s AI computer, who narrates the novel. Being able to watch this consciousness develop, learn, and experience kinship and emotion is a fantastic narrative device, and certainly adds to the story. This first person narration through its use of surveillance and archives may feel omniscient (but is in fact not). While it is a very interesting narratological device, I think for the average reader this use of the AI as narrator provides a degree of distance which may detract from insight into the inner workings of other characters.
Having experienced so much discussion of civics, society, politics, constitutions etc in the Mars books, I was also disappointed to find the inhabitants of the Aurora spaceship to be narratively disengaged with politics. As problems occur on the space ship’s journey, different factions develop and there is some consensus decision making, but mostly this space-bound society appears to be rather apolitical, or the political issues that arise are not explored in detail. There is a deeper political thinking offered in the sparse simplicity with which Robinson represents political conflict however, and the concept of the ship and possibilities it explores are fascinating. For fans of Robinson’s other work, I would say it is more Green Mars than Red Mars.
Without spoilers, I think one thing that is really interesting about both new novels is the way they explore the relationship of humans, both biologically and culturally, to Earth. Similar to the ongoing dialogue in Christopher Nolan’s recent film Interstellar about the feasibility of our species inhabiting new planets beyond our solar system, both Stephenson and Robinson engage with the question of space migration and entropy, but each in a way that targets their own characteristic concerns.